By Patrick Vint on March 20, 2021 at 9:00 am
© Meg Potter/The Republic via Imagn Content Services, LLC


TIME 5:25 pm CT
WHERE Indiana Farmers Coliseum
RADIO Learfield Affiliates
STREAM March Madness Live
LINE Iowa -14.5
KENPOM Iowa -14
21-8 RECORD 17-6
14-6 CONF. 9-3
123.5 (2nd) OFF. EFF. 103.7 (142nd)
94.7 (52nd) DEF. EFF. 96.6 (74th)
69.9 POSS. 65.4
54.6 (28th) eFG% 52.8 (60th)

There's nothing quite like this in sports: After 29 games and a bruising regular season, Iowa basketball takes the court tonight for its most important game of the year.  And every game from that point forward is the new most important game of the year.  Welcome to the NCAA Tournament.

First up: Grand Canyon University, champions of the Western Athletic Conference.  The Antelopes won 15 regular season games -- some certainly more interesting to us than others -- and won the conference tournament.  They played just one team ranked in the Kenpom top 50 this season, losing to Colorado by 10 in the week before Christmas; that's a solid showing against a Tournament 5-seed.  They nearly missed an upset win over Arizona State, as well.  The Lopes are coached by Bryce Drew, a guy with a bit of history in this event.

Drew spent five seasons coaching his alma mater, taking them to the Big Dance twice, before a three-year flameout at Vanderbilt.  After a year off, he's resurfaced in the American Southwest.  He is so excited to be working here. He loves the American Southwest, for starters. You may call them Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, but he calls them heaven.

Drew's tenure at Vanderbilt had distinct Todd Lickliter vibes: Subpar results combined with dreadfully boring basketball, and things ended quickly.  This Grand Canyon team is also well-versed in the slow-down game.  GCU is 315th in tempo this season, which is comparable to Maryland and only one possession per game quicker than Wisconsin.  This team varies from Drew's Vanderbilt squads in two important ways, though: They don't shoot threes frequently or effectively.  The Antelopes shoot at nearly 53% effective rate, but just 32% from behind the arc.  Most of their attempts are twos; the only teams Iowa has faced this year who get more scoring inside the three-point arc are Rutgers, Gonzaga and Illinois. 

There's a reason for that: Their front line is gargantuan.  In an age of positionless basketball, Grand Canyon has gone the other way by playing two seven-footers and relying on them heavily.  Asbjorn Midtgaard (7'0", 270) is an absolute unit.  A grad transfer from Wichita State, the Great Dane, leads the Lopes in scoring (14.0 ppg), rebounding (9.9 rpg) and blocked shots (1.3 bpg).  He shoots 70 percent from the field, and is third nationally in effective field goal rate and true shooting percentage.  He's a problem by himself, but he's joined by Italian import Alessandro Lever (6'10", 235), who is second on the team in scoring (13.3 ppg) and rebounding (5.4 rpg).  Lever is also the team's best three-point shooter, firing at a 39% clip from deep on three attempts per game. 

All that frontcourt size also makes GCU an efficient defensive team.  They don't generate turnovers, and they don't really block that many shots.  But their contestability is phenomenal: Opponents are shooting just 44.8% on two-point attempts and 29.7% from three.  They have the sixth-best effective field goal rate allowed in the nation, second-best in the tournament, and they dominate the glass.

The problem for Grand Canyon is that, once you get past the novelty of the twin seven-footers, there's not much more of note.  Point guard Jovan Blacksher (5'10", 155) makes everything go.  He's third on the team in scoring (11.9 ppg) and leads in assists (5.3 apg), but he's a lackluster shooter (47.3% eFG; 33.8% 3pt.).  Shooting guard Mikey Dixon (6'2", 165, 8.6 ppg) is sub-30 percent from three and sub-40 from the field.  Wingman Oscar Frayer (6'6", 190) provides even more size but manages just 6.5 points per game.  The rotation is just eight-deep, with Sean Miller-Moore (6'4", 200, 4.0/2.7/1.6) and Chance McMillan (6'2", 170, 4.4/1.7) as interchangeable backcourt cogs and Gabe McLothan (6'7", 220, 5.8/5.3) filling in for the frontcourt; typically, Drew will insert McLothan at the power forward spot and leave in one of his seven-footers alongside.

If you were working through a checklist for NCAA Tournament upset red flags, they're all there: GCU is experienced (four senior starters, plus senior McMillan off the bench).  They have a guy physically capable of hanging with Garza.  They play an unusual style, with an experienced coach who knows what he's doing, and they've played major-conference competition tough all year.  Let Ohio State serve as a warning: This is no pushover, and a Hawkeye squad that prematurely looks ahead could well be heading home early.

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